A new study suggests that even small calcium deposits in the arteries of young patients can predict an early heart attack or death within a dozen years.
The study also suggests that it's easy to spot the trouble and can be a "call to action" for doctors and patients to begin taking preventive action.
The cardiac study conducted at four centers in the U.S. involved 5,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30.
Jeff Carr, a radiologist and cardiologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, was lead author of the study.
Carr said it appears that any amount of atherosclerosis, or calcium deposits, in the cardiac arteries of young people can dramatically shorten their lives, “even if it’s just one little dot or a very low what’s called a calcium score are at markedly elevated risk. So if you have any amount of coronary calcium your risk increases over the next 10 to 15 years by about 10 percent. If you have a lot, your risk increases significantly and your chance of dying over those next years is approximately 22 percent.”
In the study, which began in 1985, 3,300 African American and white young adults received a CT scan, looking for evidence of atherosclerosis.
The remainder of the participants were followed based on known risk factors for heart attack.
Atherosclerosis was seen on CT in 30 percent of those who were scanned. The study followed up after 12 years – when doctors noted the high early mortality rate in those with calcium deposits.
The study was published in the journal JAMA Cardiology.
Carr said it’s not necessary to do a heart scan on everyone to project their risk of death from heart attack. He said a clinician can assess a person’s risk of an attack by doing a health profile measuring and weighing a number of risk factors.
“Risk factors like blood pressure and cholesterol, even when modestly elevated in early adult life in these people at high risk, may provide opportunity to identify them and treat risk factors more aggressively, and just potentially be able to lower the risk of future heart attacks that we saw over the past 15 years in the cohort [study participants],” Carr said.
Carr said medications to lower high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, weight loss and stopping smoking are proven to be effective in fighting heart disease. And of course a healthier diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables and less red meat, doesn’t hurt.